A Reminder of the Past
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It had started like so many of their endeavors as a conversation at the dinner table. No one could quite recall later how birthdays had become a topic of conversation, but it had and they reminisced over the last birthday each had celebrated before they all met for their fateful journey to the plateau.
Roxton recalled sharing a bottle of whiskey with a group of hunters while on a safari in the Congo. Challenger fondly remembered a special meal his wife Jessie had cooked for him, the meal being pretty inedible, but the affectionate gesture much appreciated. Ned Malone had been invited to a party at his editorís home, but not because it was his birthday. It was an official function but it had felt a bit as if the party had been given for him, especially after Gladys had found out it was his birthday and made the whole party sing "Happy Birthday" for him.
He smiled a bit sheepishly at Veronica while telling the story, and Marguerite Krux smiled sardonically at this display of embarrassment over a past love when the relationship between Ned and Veronica was anything but clear.
When Marguerite was asked about her last birthday, she invented a story about a glamorous party held by an especially ardent suitor, complete with champagne, caviar and dazzling diamond jewelry. She did not want to divulge the truth about her birthdays--that she did not really celebrate them since she had no way of knowing whether the birth date given in her passport was really true.
Summerlee was uncharacteristically reluctant to join the conversation, which both Veronica and Marguerite noticed after a while. They spoke up at the same time.
"So, Summerlee, what about you?" Ė "Professor, you've been very quiet "
The whole table erupted in laughter.
Summerlee looked at the two women, both of whom he was very fond of. He smiled, sucked on his pipe, and leaned back. "My last birthday I celebrated it with my daughter and two of my grandchildren. We were watching the marvelous parade for the Kingís birthday and then went to Fortnum & Masonís for tea."
"The parade?" Marguerite Krux asked, quickly doing some mental arithmetic. "But that means that your birthday is in ten days. Why didnít you tell us earlier?"
The old man smiled at her. "At my age, my dear, birthdays are just a reminder that you are a step closer to the grave."
The uncharacteristically melancholy comment put a halt to the conversation for a moment, until Challenger spoke up.
"Nonsense, Arthur, youíll outlive us all. Weíll have a fabulous celebration in ten days--a birthday fete, which will celebrate you and the fact that we are all lucky enough to have survived so many months in the lost world."
All agreed that this was a splendid idea.
A few days later Marguerite looked for an opportunity to talk with Veronica, but the young woman had left earlier for a visit to the Zanga village. Marguerite regretted her habit of sleeping in and wondered who could help her now with her project. Ned Malone was sitting at the table writing in his journal. She went over and sat next to him. He looked up when she sat down and eyed her rather warily. Usually Marguerite either ignored or abused him. She smiled sweetly at him, which only put him on edge even more.
"Malone, are you very busy? I was wondering whether you could go on a little expedition with me."
Ned looked at her in utter astonishment. "You want to go on an expedition Ė with me?"
Marguerite was getting a bit impatient with the young reporter, but she concealed it and kept the dazzling smile plastered on her face. "Yes, with you. I need to go to the valley that we went to two weeks ago."
"Iíll go with you," a voice behind her said. "Iíll have to go hunting anyway and from what I hear the valley is a great hunting ground. Plenty of raptors around."
Margueriteís back stiffened. "Donít worry, Roxton, Iím sure Ned and I can manage."
But Malone was very relieved that the English lord had made this offer and quickly replied. "Marguerite, Iím afraid I canít go with you. I promised to help Challenger in the lab with some of his experiments."
Roxton grinned at Marguerite and said, "Looks like youíre stuck with me, your highness."
Marguerite was sorely tempted to refuse the offer to be accompanied by Roxton, but she knew that she would lose valuable time if she didnít leave the Treehouse soon.
"All right, Roxton, but this expedition has a purpose. I have to find an object and I cannot return without it, so we may have to camp out there."
Roxtonís grin became even wider. "A night under the stars with you Ė how delightful."
Upon hearing this Marguerite rolled her eyes, stood up, and went to her room.
Roxton and Marguerite had walked for nearly four hours, sometimes talking, but most of the time in companionable silence. Although neither of them would have admitted it, they were enjoying the walk through the jungle and each otherís company. Roxton mused about how unlike other women she was--strong, independent, tough, but at the same time utterly feminine. Marguerite occasionally glanced at her companion, taking pleasure in his handsome features and his strength. He carried a heavy backpack which contained a tent, provisions for several days, and extra ammunition. Even after carrying it for hours he showed no signs of fatigue.
She had wanted to go to the valley with Veronica or Ned because she was very much in control around them, while Roxton sometimes had a rather disquieting effect on her. The man had ways to get under her skin--something she had never expected to happen.
Marguerite possessed enough self-awareness to admit to herself that a part of her was actually glad he was her companion today. He embodied the role of protector perfectly. He was very adroit in fighting predators or any pesky villains that dared to stand in their way. Of course he also had this annoying habit of trying to help every stranger who was in peril, trying to right every wrong on the plateau whether it concerned them or not.
Roxton stopped walking, took off his hat and wiped the sweat off his brow. "Thereís a river about half an hour from here. At the riverbank is an area that's secluded and safe from predators. How about resting there for an hour or two?"
"Good idea. I certainly could use a break."
When they reached the river, Marguerite was pleased to see that the spot Roxton had chosen for their break was very idyllic. The riverbank was covered with soft, emerald green grass and the water of the river was clear, not muddy like so many others on the plateau. A few granite boulders lay along the riverside, providing them with shade and also some protection against unwelcome guests. They took off their backpacks and settled down for a light meal. The explorers had all gotten used to eating dried raptor meat, although it was certainly an acquired taste. They finished their meal with a piece of fresh fruit.
"Challenger would be proud of us. We are adhering to his dietary rules and are watching our vitamin C intake," Marguerite said with a little smile.
"Well, this is one of his rules that is actually not too unpleasant to follow. I still get slightly nauseous thinking about that dietary supplement he invented a while ago."
Marguerite got up to wash her hands in the river water. The water felt cool and refreshing and she decided to use the opportunity to clean up a bit more. She took off her boots, sat down on one of the boulders that was overhanging the riverbank and let her feet dangle in the cool water. After a while she got up, went back to their campsite, took a washcloth from her backpack and returned to the boulder she had sat on before.
Roxton watched very interestedly how she took off her blouse--revealing her lacy camisole--wet the washcloth in the river and carefully cleaned her arms, neck and shoulders.
"You have the primping habits of a cat, Ms Krux." he said teasingly.
Marguerite turned around and looked at him haughtily. "And you, Lord Roxton, have primping habits that are not very aristocratic, Iím afraid. A filthy beggar is less sweaty than you."
Roxton just grinned at her. "I told you before Ė donít let the title fool you " But he got up from their campsite and joined her at the boulder. She looked at him, not quite sure what he was up to. "I think, youíre right, Marguerite," he continued. "I should follow your shining example and clean up a bit."
She looked at him in surprise, and was even more surprised when he shrugged off his braces and started unbuttoning his shirt. A moment later he had taken off his shirt, tossed it aside carelessly and took the washcloth out of Margueriteís hand.
He wet the cloth again and started washing his arms and chest. Much to her chagrin, Marguerite had a hard time keeping her eyes away from his body. Her breath came a little faster and shallower, and she felt her cheeks flush a bit.
Roxton looked at her and upon seeing her reaction he grinned at her in that cheeky, arrogant manner, which riled her immeasurably. But Marguerite was no timid virgin and she was in no mood to let him get the upper hand.
Two can play this game, my lord, she thought and went over to him.
She stepped close to him and asked him in a silky voice that made the hairs on his neck stand up, "Do you need any help with hard to reach places, Roxton?"
He was startled by her boldness, but would have never thought of backing down. He raised an eyebrow, grinned at her and handed her the washcloth.
She bent down, wetting it again, and in the process of doing so gave him a very titillating view of her cleavage. She caught his appreciative glance and smiled at him sweetly. At the end of the day he was just a man like any other
She started rubbing the cloth over his broad back. The touch of the cloth and her cool fingers on his back felt incredible. Roxton realized that he may have overplayed his hand.
Itís because I've lived a monkís life for months, he thought, but deep down he suspected this was not the only reason.
Marguerite was an astute observer of people and she was adept at reading body language. She felt how his back stiffened a little and how his breath caught in this throat. She rubbed the washcloth over his shoulders and neck, then moved even closer and whispered in his ear in her most seductive voice. "Feels good cleaning up, doesnít it, Lord Roxton?"
Roxton cleared his throat and said in a voice that sounded disgustingly shaky to his own ears, "I had no idea how useful you can be, Ms Krux."
"You havenít seen half of it " Marguerite purred in his ear.
He wasnít sure whether the fleeting sensation he felt on his earlobe was her breath or her lips. He turned around abruptly to look at her, wondering whether he understood her signals right or whether she was just toying with him.
She moved away from him, took the cloth and washed it again in the river.
"Better get going, Roxton. We have a few more hours ahead of us before we get to the valley," she said in her usual curt tone.
He took a deep breath and put on his shirt again.
"Over there," Marguerite said.
"Thatís a pretty steep hill. Are you sure this is where you'll find your mysterious object? And are you finally going to tell me what it is?"
"Why are you so interested? Itís nothing you have to carry back."
"All right, keep it a secret, but I bet itís nothing but a boring bauble."
"Youíre right, Roxton, you can see right through me."
He knew her well enough by now to know that he could do nothing of the sort. She was still a mystery to him and whenever he thought he had figured her out, she did something that destroyed all his preconceived notions. One moment she was cold and selfish, the next moment she showed kindness. He remembered how he had told Malone that he trusted her to watch their backs and the more he was around her, the more he became convinced that his assessment of her was true. But he still didnít understand her. Since he thought of himself as a good judge of character, he felt frustrated by his lack of understanding of this woman.
Marguerite interrupted his musings, when she asked, "Itís late. Is it safe to camp here or do you want me to finish my project first and camp somewhere else?"
"Letís set up camp. Over there is a small cave--easy to defend and it'll provide shelter in case it rains. We wonít have to set up the tent."
She smiled at Roxton and nodded. "Sounds good to me."
They went into the cave and, after making sure that it didnít harbor unwanted companions, they unpacked blankets and food. Roxton collected firewood and after a short while they had set up their camp for the night.
"Go to sleep, Marguerite. Iíll take first watch."
"Fine, Roxton, but donít forget to wake me. Iím perfectly capable of keeping watch, no need for you to play the tireless hero."
"All right, your highness. And now go to sleep!"
Exhausted from the walk, Marguerite soon fell into a deep slumber. Roxton walked around the cave, fighting his own exhaustion. After five hours he woke up Marguerite.
"Are you up for your watch?" he asked. She yawned and nodded. "Wake me at the first sign of trouble, got it?"
"Got it. And now be a good boy and go to sleep."
He stretched out on a blanket and fell asleep quickly. Marguerite divided her attention between keeping watch and looking at Roxton. He looked rather peaceful, lying like that. No bad dreams for his lordship, it seems.
She took her blanket and put it over his sleeping body.
The next morning they hiked to the base of the steep hill top, which Marguerite had pointed out the day before. She took a small shovel out of her backpack and Roxton smirked at her.
"As I expected, digging for treasures," he said in a rather supercilious tone.
She smiled at him sweetly. "As I said before, you can see right through me. Listen, Roxton, no need for both of us to climb up there. Why donít you wait here with our packs while I get what I need?"
Roxton looked up at the hill top and frowned. "Do you think itís safe up there?"
"I know it is. I was up there last week with Challenger and Summerlee."
He watched Marguerite climb up the steep hill. She was agile and strong, but it was obvious that this climb was hard even for her. He saw her reach the top and then she vanished from sight. After what seemed like a long time but was actually only about ten minutes, she reappeared at the top of the hill and climbed back down.
She had a small bag in her hand, which seemed to contain the object that she had mentioned. It looked too big for gems, but he couldnít figure what it was. She handled it with great care, as if the object were fragile.
"Did you get what you came for?" he asked.
She smiled very happily and said, "I did. Now letís get a nice piece of meat for Summerleeís birthday party."
Luck was on the hunterís side. After only two hours of hunting he had shot a boar and two turkey-like birds. They set up a contraption that Challenger had built which allowed them to carry the boar and the birds without too much effort.
They walked for a few hours, until Marguerite stopped and sat down on a fallen tree. "Roxton, I need a break. My feet are killing me. And Iím exhausted from dragging those animal carcasses through the jungle."
"Sure. We can stop for an hour or two and still get back to the Treehouse tonight. Although it will be late. We could of course also spend the night at the Zanga village. That would be another two hours, but weíd be safe for the night."
"Whatever you think best, Roxton."
Roxton raised his eyebrows upon this uncharacteristic display of compliance, but chose to say nothing. He took a water flask from his backpack and handed it to Marguerite. She took the flask and drank thirstily.
"This is good. I didnít even notice how thirsty I was," the heiress commented.
"You have to be careful. With the sun and our brisk walking pace it's easy to get dehydrated."
She smiled at him. "Still trying to teach me survival skills?"
"I have to bring you back safely, otherwise my reputation as protector of the expedition could suffer," he said, grinning at her. She laughed at this comment and he thought again how lovely it was to hear her laugh.
Marguerite stood up and looked around. He guessed immediately what she was looking for. "Need a quiet spot? Behind that large tree over there should be safe."
"Thanks. If Iím not back in five minutes, call the cavalry."
When she had disappeared behind the tree, he quickly opened the bag she had used to store the object from the hill side and took a peek. He was greeted by an unexpected sight.
An orchid? Why would she walk for miles to collect an orchid? She's never shown much interest in plants Roxton was flabbergasted. Marguerite was not exactly keen on hiking through the jungle for hours, the only exception being expeditions that promised valuable gems.
He quickly closed the bag and decided to try to find out more about this while they walked back.
After spending the night at the Zanga village, Marguerite and Roxton were getting closer to the Treehouse. Roxton had brought up the subject of what was in Margueriteís bag several times, but she had deflected all his questions.
When they rode up in the elevator around noon, he asked her again, but she made a flippant remark about gems being the only thing that would make her hike for several miles and while he knew that this was not the case this time, he couldnít tell her without admitting to snooping behind her back.
The other explorers greeted them joyfully, as everyone was aware that any trip away from the Treehouse held dangers for their lives.
Marguerite took Veronica aside and whispered something to her. The young woman responded with a smile and Marguerite looked very satisfied.
Malone asked them, "Marguerite, Roxton, do you want to have some lunch? We baked bread last night."
Roxton turned and smiled at the young journalist. "That sounds very good, Ned. Iím quite hungry after all that walking."
Ned smiled back at the hunter and said, "And dragging that boar and the two birds through the jungle must have made you hungry, too."
Marguerite turned to Roxton. "Donít forget to get the boar and the birds ready for tonightís party."
"Yes, your highness. Donít worry, Iíll take care of everything," the hunter quipped.
Malone chuckled. "Iím sure she kept you on your toes these past few days, huh?"
Roxton grinned back. "She was actually quite well-behaved."
Marguerite was on her way down to her room, but she had heard the conversation between Malone and Roxton and turned around for a moment. "For your information, Malone, I even scrubbed Roxtonís back to keep him in line."
Ned looked at Marguerite in utter confusion and then turned to Roxton. Much to his surprise the usually unflappable lord seemed to blush upon hearing this remark.
Later that night everyone congregated in the living area for the birthday celebration. Malone and Veronica had prepared dinner and the smell of roasted boar permeated the Treehouse. Marguerite had decorated the table and it looked very festive and elegant. Two bottles of wine had been opened and before they sat down to eat dinner, they sang "For Heís a Jolly Good Fellow," and Challenger said a heartfelt birthday toast for Summerlee.
The old man looked genuinely touched at the displays of affection. They ate the delicious meal with hearty appetites and everyone commented on the great culinary skills that both Malone and Veronica had displayed. Both of them were pleased with the acknowledgement of their efforts.
Dessert was a fruit salad that was accompanied by champagne. Unfortunately they had no means of chilling the champagne, which rather impaired the joy of the beverage. Marguerite took a sip and wrinkled her nose, and even Roxton frowned after swallowing half a glass of champagne.
They cleared the table and that was the signal for the gift-giving ceremony.
Veronica had copied numerous pages from her parents' journals that contained information on the flora of the lost world and had thus created a veritable compendium for a discerning botanist. Malone had somehow procured an artifact from a rather hostile tribe, which Summerlee had admired on a recent expedition but would never have dreamed of owning one day. Challenger had built beautiful frames for several of Summerleeís drawings and the old man was very touched when he saw how much time and effort his former adversary had put into a birthday gift for him.
Roxton felt a bit embarrassed when he saw how thoughtful all the gifts were, as his part had been to hunt the game for the meal and he felt that he had not put the same amount of effort into the gift as the others had. He was just about to make a comment when Marguerite stepped forward and handed over the orchid to Summerlee with the words: "This is from Roxton and me."
Summerlee looked at the orchid and he seemed to be at a loss for words. He looked at Marguerite and Roxton, obviously deeply moved and said, "You remembered. You canít imagine how much this means to me."
Challenger looked very touched as well and reached out to squeeze both Margueriteís and Roxtonís hands.
Roxton felt bad taking credit for a gift which he had neither chosen nor procured and was about to say so, but a swift kick against his shin stopped him. He turned to Marguerite who looked at him rather viciously, obviously not wanting him to talk about the orchid or the trip that had brought it to the Treehouse. Roxton decided to shut up.
Later that night, after most of the explorers had gone to bed, Roxton searched out Marguerite to try to find out more about the orchid.
He found her on the balcony, obviously deep in thought. She turned around when she heard his steps and smiled at him.
"That was a nice party, wasnít it? I think Summerlee enjoyed it."
Roxton smiled back at her and said, "Yes, I think he did. With our limited resources I think we managed to turn this into quite a celebration."
They looked out over the jungle canopy and were silent for a few minutes.
Then Roxton turned to her to say what lay heavily on his mind. "Listen, Marguerite "
She interrupted him. "Youíre angry because I said the present was from both of us when you had no idea that I had gathered an orchid on our little excursion."
"Iím not angry, I just feel itís not right to take credit for something that was solely your doing."
She laughed softly and turned to him. "John, you were there to protect me, and without you I would have never been able to get that orchid. When we first saw it, we couldnít get it because we had collected too many damn specimens already and couldnít even add a blade of grass. The valley is dangerous and full of raptors, and I needed someone to watch my back. Be a good boy and accept Summerleeís gratitude. You made this possible, no need to feel bad about anything."
Roxton looked at her and he felt a rush of emotion surge through him. This woman was a source of endless surprises. Fire and steel, yes, but also a softness that he had never encountered before. So many contradictions, so many facets No wonder she liked gems so much--she was like a beautiful gemstone herself.
She stepped closer to him and he felt his pulse quicken.
"Donít get all soft and mushy, Roxton. Iím really not a nice person or a lady."
"But why didnít you tell me? Why keep it a secret?"
Marguerite raised an eyebrow and smiled. "Because I like toying with you. Havenít you figured that out yet?"
Roxton wondered for a moment what she would do if he kissed her now, but she abruptly turned around and left.
The next morning Roxton was up early. When he entered the living area, he saw that he was not the first person to be up and about. Summerlee sat at the table looking at his orchid.
Roxton walked over to him and said, "Good morning, professor. Did you sleep well?"
Summerlee turned to him and smiled cheerfully. "Yes, my boy, thank you very much. Last nightís party was quite a treat."
Roxton decided that he didnít want to wait any longer. "Listen, Professor, Iíve been meaning to ask you Marguerite really didnít tell me much about the orchid. Whatís so special about it?"
Summerlee smiled and looked at Roxton. "Marguerite is a very discreet woman. I guess she didnít want to expose the sentimental foolhardiness of an old man. But I think you deserve to know why you had to run through a dangerous jungle to get a birthday present for me."
Roxton poured himself a cup of tea and sat down, as Summerlee continued.
"You probably remember that a few weeks ago Marguerite, Challenger and I went on an expedition to map the valley. It was quite a trip, we were accosted by cannibals and attacked by raptors and Marguerite nearly fell off a cliff."
"In short - a typical day in the Lost World," Roxton said with a smile.
Summerlee chuckled. "Yes, you might say that. At one part of our trip we came to a beautiful hillside where we saw this wonderful orchid. You see, this flower has a special meaning for me. When I was a young botanist, I found this kind of orchid on an expedition to South America with the University of London. It turned out it was a new species that hadnít been classified before. At that time my wife Anna was pregnant with our first child and I named the orchid after her. When I saw the orchid again here in this lost world, it seemed such a powerful reminder of what I had left behind, so I wanted to get it and bring it back to the Treehouse. Unfortunately just when I was about to get the orchid, a pack of raptors attacked us and Marguerite, Challenger, and I narrowly escaped. Marguerite actually shot two raptors. She was incredibly brave and saved our lives. I wanted to go back, but Challenger thought it was foolish to risk our lives for such sentimental reasons. At the time Marguerite agreed with him, but I know now that she had planned to go back and get the flower for me. Well, both of you did, of course."
Both men were silent for a few minutes. Summerlee puffed his pipe and Roxton stared into his tea cup.
Then Summerlee turned to Roxton and smiled. "Are you sorry you walked that far for such a trifle?"
Roxton smiled back at the old professor. "Sorry? Not at all. Iím very proud to have played a small part in bringing a piece of home for you to the Treehouse."
Many months later, after Summerlee had disappeared in the ambush on the bridge, all members of the Treehouse family took turns in taking care of the orchid. The flower flourished and was almost constantly in bloom.
One night Roxton saw Marguerite water the plant and he walked over to her.
She smiled at him, almost a little embarrassed and said, "I know itís silly, but sometimes I think that as long as the plant blooms, there is a chance that Summerlee will come back."
Roxton took her hand in his and squeezed it gently. "Thatís not silly, Marguerite, not silly at all."